May 13, 2009 3 Comments
I thought of you on Mother’s Day. I hope it has cooled off in your city. While it was hot for you, the air here was sodden and unraining, the kind of day where you wear a cardigan and sweat through it after walking a block.
I spent Mother’s Day with mine. It was her first without her mother, and the weekend felt a little like one of those blown-glass figurines they used to sell at malls before there was Swarovski crystal. Birds with blue trim, hot air balloons, tiny grand pianos. It was lovely and delicate and so brittle you could almost hear the pieces tinkling musically as they broke on the floor.
My grandmother’s sister, age 92, spent it with my mother and me, along with her daughter, who recently left her husband and is living with her. For a day we were a colony of mothers and overgrown daughters in nested roofs. I made lunch, they brought salads. A family friend brought a cake. We sat outside with the potted tulips I’d bought my aunt and great-aunt. My father was there, a benign presence. Nothing noteworthy was said. It was the sort of afternoon where what matters is that the bell peppers were slightly overcooked, but there were Russian pastries and teacups and the gentle hilarity of a little old lady, hunched and bird-boned, speaking aghast into a computer and hearing her son’s voice answer from overseas.
They left. I updated my mother’s and father’s computers. I taught my father how to use Facebook.
Sunday night, while my mother was ironing her hair in the bathroom, I brought my computer in and clicked it open on the vanity, wondering for a moment, as I opened my web browser, whether what I was about to do was the right thing.
I went to Meghan O’Rourke’s nine-part series on grieving over the loss of her mother on Slate, and asked my mother if she wanted me to read her the second-to-last one. I had glanced at it and it seemed more hopeful than despairing and dealt, curiously enough, with Easter.
My mom had been really moved by a couple of Megan’s essays; she identified, months ago, with her experience of feeling her mother’s presence like a blanket, as something tangible. She had since, she told me, lost that sense of presence. She didn’t feel her anymore.
I started to read.
My dad came in halfway through. My dad has unpredictable taste. He felt, for instance, that Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking was irredeemably self-indulgent and selfish. I didn’t want him to pronounce on Megan’s essay; didn’t want him to import his critical self—which doesn’t always sense context; didn’t want him to turn this moment into anything other than what it was. I felt him judging every word. My blown-glass piano was crumbling.
I read on, trying to keep my voice from being melodramatic or monotone, trying to toe the line between sappy and abstract. Was it too literary? Too high-brow? Too self-indulgent? Too American? Was this really an experience that meant anything to anyone who’d suffered so great a loss? Was it the worst kind of presumption to read this account to my mother, who perhaps hadn’t gotten beyond it, wasn’t ready to look forward to the next step?
I finished the article, my mind calculating a billion reactions and ways of minimizing damage. I barely understood what I read. The end has to do with traditions, a father who’s a Classicist and advises Meghan to make apple pie next year—to understand that her making pie was a way of calling her mother, whose presence (like my mother’s mother’s) had left her.
The article ended. My mom and dad both said, very simply, that they loved it. My dad went to lie down. My mom picked up her flatiron, looked at me, and told me I was having a massive allergic reaction. I glanced in the mirror: sure enough, my shoulders and chest were blazing red, red as a really bad sunburn. Everything itched.
She called my dad. He said, eyes still closed, that it was probably an allergy to ibuprofen (he dislikes the fact that I take it for migraines). I snapped that I’d taken the medicine at 8:00 that morning.
My mom touched my shoulder. It was blazing hot. “This just started now,” she said. “You weren’t like this before you started reading.” “Huh,” I said.
“It was the essay,” she said, in a sudden moment of clarity, and I knew she was right. She bent down and hugged me—she guessed the itchy tangles I’d waded through in the last few minutes, wanting it to be okay.
I mumbled something about that not being it. “You poor thing,” she said, and grinned. “That’s what it is. Here, read another one and let’s see if you get redder.”
(More on mothers and death here.)